Born with Spina Bifida, para swimmer Niranjan Mukundan overcame incredible odds to not only represent and win several medals for India, but also set the Asian Records and inspire millions.
On the morning of 8 May 2022, para swimmer Niranjan Mukundan shattered the Asian record in the 800 metres freestyle event by more than 50 seconds at the Para Swimming Cup event in Prague, Czech Republic. Finishing with a time of 11:17:22, he obliterated the 12-year-old Asian record, which stood at 12:10:34, and finished the competition with six medals— three gold, two silver, one bronze and a 4th place finish as well.
“The day before the 800m freestyle, I won a couple of medals in the 100m butterfly, 50m butterfly, 100m freestyle and 100m backstroke as well. My German coach Maik Zeh was really happy with the first day’s results. Looking at my timings in other events, he said that if I kept up the same pace in the 800 m freestyle, I could break the Asian record. In my mind, this wasn’t going to happen because I wasn’t used to swimming 800m. I just decided to give my best and see what happens,” recalls the 27-year-old from Bengaluru, in a conversation with The Better India earlier this week.
Niranjan had only begun training for the 800m freestyle three to four weeks prior to the event. After all, this distance would also cover the future events he was training for, including the 50m freestyle for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, as well as the 100m freestyle and 400m freestyle in next year’s Para Asian Games, which he qualified for.
Just before the starting whistle went off in the 800m freestyle, he was stone-faced and in his zone. But there were some nerves, he admits.
Starting the race in the middle lane, he had a view of his competitors on either side. In the first few 100m, he was swimming alongside three of them and ahead of the pack. Post 400m, there was one competitor on the right who was a stroke ahead of him. By 600m, he caught up to him swimming neck to neck. After making the turn post-700m, he overtook him leading by one stroke and wanted to maintain that lead. Turning in for the last lap (50m), the lead had grown to two body lengths. Well ahead, he wanted to finish fast.
“Your hands barely move in the last 100m because of the intense fatigue. You almost feel paralysed. The fatigue was so intense that I didn’t know how fast I was swimming, but only knew that I had to finish. The only clue I had that things were going well was hearing the crowd, including my friends and teammates, cheering loudly for me,“ he recalls.
After the race finished, the Czech announcer told the audience that he had set a new Asian record. “At first, I couldn’t believe it. It was a brilliant moment with the entire stadium standing up for me. Coaches, parents and athletes came up to congratulate me. These are the moments you live for,” he adds.
What’s intriguing is that the 800m freestyle isn’t even his main event. Niranjan primarily swims in the 50m butterfly (achieving his highest world ranking of 10), 100m butterfly, IM (individual medley competition, which includes all four strokes—backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle), and 50m and 100m freestyle. The 800m freestyle was an experimental event.
“Over the past few months, I’ve been training a lot in freestyle and mid-distance events. However, neither my team nor coach knew that I was going to break the Asian record,” he says.
Niranjan is currently training in a national training centre in Berlin, Germany, for the upcoming World Para Swimming Championships in Portugal, scheduled for June 2022 and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. For the world championships, he’ll be competing in 50m butterfly, 200m IM and 100 m freestyle. These are his ‘main focus events’ building up to the 2022 Asian Para Games slated for next year in Hangzhou, China, following a postponement.
The Bengaluru para athlete began his first stint in Germany with a professional club SC Potsdam last year, following the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which concluded on 5 September. Coach Maik Zeh, who is also currently the founder and head of Para Swimming Academy Potsdam, told him there that the club were looking for a specialist in the butterfly events and they wanted to sign him up for the winter season last year. After the winter season concluded in January 2022, he came back again to the club in March following a two-month break.
“I train with world record holders, paralympic medalists, and German record holders in the para as well as abled swimming competitions. I also compete regularly in league competitions and short course championships for SC Potsdam. It’s a massive set-up here. Training here gives me focus, strength, access to quality nutrition, strength and conditioning coaches and a team that helps me analyse my strengths and weaknesses. It has been a great stint so far,” he says.
He goes on to add, “The original plan was to train here in Germany until October 2022 for the Asian Games. But since the event has been postponed to next year, I’ll probably compete in the world championships and Commonwealth Games, and come back once the season starts again in September-October 2022 to represent SC Potsdam.”
Finding freedom in water
Niranjan was born in Bengaluru with a medical condition called Spina Bifida, a congenital defect of the spine that often causes paralysis of the lower limbs. Since birth, he has undergone 19 surgeries. Till the age of 5, he was completely paralysed below the waist.
“I couldn’t walk or stand. My parents carried me everywhere. When I was 5, a doctor performed corrective surgery on both legs and suggested to my parents that they soon put me into horse riding or swimming. As a kid, I just didn’t want to sit on a horse, so I decided to give swimming a shot. I was initially swimming just for aqua therapy following corrective surgery to strengthen the legs. But water, as an element, ignited a sense of freedom within me. When instructors put me on the shallow end, I used to find my way into the deep end,” he recalls.
That’s how he fell in love with the sport. His parents soon enrolled him into a swimming facility in Jayanagar, Bengaluru. He first touched a swimming pool at the age of seven, and within six months, coach John Christopher spotted him.
John, who till today is Niranjan’s coach in India, told his parents about para swimming and asked them to enrol him into it. Soon, he began training and success followed almost immediately.
“Just three months after I began training with him, I took part in the National Para Swimming Championship, sometime around 2003-04, representing Karnataka at the junior level. I won a silver medal.”
“When you get the taste of success, you want more. Growing up as a hyperactive child, getting into competitive sports always felt natural. It was sometime during the 2012-13 season when I represented the country for the first time,” he recalls.
And he kept on racking up the achievements on both the national and global stage. At the 2014 IWAS World Junior Games in Stoke Mandeville, UK, Niranjan won an astounding eight medals, three gold, two silver and three bronze. Two years later at the 2016 IWAS Junior World Games in Prague, Niranjan won eight more medals—three gold, two silver and three bronze.
In 2016 he received an Ekalavya Award from the Karnataka government in recognition of his performances in para swimming. He was also awarded the National Award for Best Para Sportsperson of the Year in 2015 by the Government of India.
Winning more than 85 medals representing India, he also broke the Asian record in the 200m backstroke during the 2018 World Para swimming World Series.
Supporting his dreams
Niranjan says his achievements in the sport couldn’t have been possible without the support of his parents, family, coaches, training partners, and a non-profit called GoSports Foundation.
“When I first represented India in 2012, an NGO called GoSports Foundation, which supports athletes in India, brought me on board. That was when I was transitioning from Junior to Senior level, making a name for myself at the national level and swimming in some open meets at the international level. They saw potential in me and came forward. I’ve been with them ever since. They have not just supported me financially, but also given me access to expertise in nutrition, strength and conditioning, and sponsored training stints abroad,” he says.
Today, parasports, especially para swimming, is at a developmental stage in India, where people are getting to know about it. But funding is a huge issue. It’s a long road ahead.
“We are a bunch of athletes who represent India at the highest level. We put in the same amount, if not more, hard work into our craft. I would urge Indian brands and corporations to support parasports. After all, these sports can only be known if more players emerge from it. More players can only emerge with the right kind of support. Some have the means to make it on their own, but most don’t have access to the right kind of support,” he says.
Training in Germany
When Niranjan signed with SC Potsdam in Germany last year, it was just not for a high-performance training stint. He also joined as a professional club member representing them in league competitions and short course championships across Germany. In India, we’ve seen ISL, IPL, and the Badminton Premier League. But in para sports, especially para swimming, the country hasn’t organised short course championships or league format tournaments.
“Before Germany, I would take part in three or four competitions a year. Last year, I was competing almost every two weeks. I was training, getting points for the club in different competitions, and representing India across Europe. The salary to represent the club isn’t very high, but they take care of all expenses wherever we go to compete. This structure is missing in not just India, but Asian countries too,” he says.
Apart from the Nationals that happen every year in India, not many Asian countries come forward to host regular para swimming championships.
“It’s really sad compared to the fact that our competitors in Europe are racing three or four times a month. As an elite athlete, you don’t want to train for six months to compete in one competition. I would rather keep competing and ensure my mind stays in ‘race mode’ continuously. Given that I train and compete with the best, almost every other weekend has improved my swimming. But there is a lack of a formal structure for para swimming in India and very little participation at the State level, unlike for our able-bodied swimmers,” he says.
Although Niranjan was part of a similar training set up in Thailand as part of the FINA Group for three years working under Miguel Lopez, an Olympic coach, he has never been part of a professional club.
“When I came to Germany, I adapted to the environment and couldn’t afford to slow down given how regularly I had to race. It’s also a matter of professional responsibility to be at your best when representing the club on a weekly basis, and representing India every other month in different competitions. There is no scope for complacency. This year, the season is just starting up, but it’s a quieter one for me because I’m working towards competing in the World Championships and Commonwealth Games. I’ve been keeping my club duties slightly on the back burner. Hopefully, I can come back here soon after these competitions,” he says.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)